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Archive for the ‘women’s novels’ Category


Charlotte (Rose Williams) as she comes out into the sunshine and her first full look at


the sea …. followed by


downright frolicking ….

You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be
When we go a-rolling in
We will duck and swim ….
Over and over, and under again
Pa is rich, Ma is rich, oh I do love to be beside the sea
I love to be beside your side, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea …

Friends and readers,

This experimental or innovative Jane Austen is not an appropriation: this is heritage all right. All the people in costume. If you attend carefully to the twelve chapter untitled fragment, the last piece of writing Austen got down (1817), known in her family as Sanditon, and then equally carefully into the continuation added by her niece Anna Austen Lefroy (probably after 1830), you will find that a remarkable number of the details and slightest hints have been transferred and elaborated from both texts (plus possibly a third, Marie Dobbs’s continuation) into this eight part series. Davies and his team (there are several writers, and several directors, though Davies is credited throughout as the creator, and has written a good deal of what we hear), the team have also availed themselves of Davies’ previous film adaptations from Austen: so the angry hardly-contained violence of Mark Strong’s Mr Knightley (1996 BBC Emma) has become the angry hard-contained violence of Theo James’s Sidney Parker:


This strident Sidney is one on whom apologies have no effect: he returns sarcasm and rejection: “I have no interest in your approval or disapproval”

The rude intrusive domineering insults of all Lady Catherine de Boughs and Davies’s Mrs Ferrars have become part of Anne Reid’s Lady Denham; the clown buffoonery of minor-major characters in Davies 2009 Sense and Sensibility just poured into Turlough Covery’s Arthur Parker &c.

And they have scoured all Austen’s texts (letters too) for precedents: female friendships and frenemys everywhere, game-playing (including cricket), piano playing where fit in, wild and heavy beat dancing, balls, show-off luncheons, water therapy — though they have nonetheless switched from the single feminocentric perspective of Charlotte of Austen’s present Sanditon (all is seen through her eyes, with the emphasis throughout on the women) to a double story where Sidney and Tom’s (Kris Marshall) two stories run in tandem with, and shape, Charlotte’s


Here Sidney and Tom are standing over Charlotte coming out from underneath the desk, discussing what they are to do next, the men call the shots, stride by seemingly purposefully — though except for Stringer they seem to have nothing much to do …

Charlotte’s story in this movie itself is continually interwoven with, shot through by, the on-going separate highly transgressive sexualized stories of 1) the incestuous Edward and Esther Denham (Jack Fox and Charlotte Spencer), 2) sexual abuse from childhood by men and now Edward and social abuse from her aunt seen literally in Clara Brereton’s (Lily Saroksky) doings (which seem from afar to include forced fellatio or jerking Edward off), and 3) young Stringer (Leo Sluter)’s aspirations in conflict with his loyalty to his entrenched-in-the-past father.


Charlotte glimpsing, shocked, Clara and Edward (in the book she sees them from afar compromised on a bench), a few minutes later the upset Charlotte is given no pity by her aunt

If you add in Charlotte’s pro-activity on behalf of getting Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke as “half-mulatto” — Austen’s phrase) out of trouble, out of her room, and unexpectedly into flirting with an appropriate African-born suitor, now freed and working for the abolition of slavery (Jyuddah Jaymes as Otis Molyneux), you have a helluva lot of lot going on.

This is the busiest and most the most frolick-filled Austen adaptation I’ve seen (perhaps with the exception of the violent-action-packed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) with an upbeat lyrical music that turns into a sharp beat rhythm now and again. Episode 1 after frolicking on the beach and in the water (twice) ends in a long gay dance-sequence. Episode 2 after more bathing (Charlotte rising from the sea), a super-luxurious dressed-up luncheon, with some excoriating wit and a rotten pineapple (talked about as an erotic object, seemingly phallic), and attempts to flee to London inside a mocking crowd, ends in several walks into the cliffs, with a apparently near suicide by Miss Lambe (rescued, just, by Charlotte), and a sexualized water clash (Sidney has tried to escape by diving in, only to discover in front of him as he emerges naked, Charlotte). Episode 3, a wild water therapy machine sequence by the latest of mountebanks or doctor-quacks, Dr Fuchs (Adrian Scarborough), followed by a serious accident inflicted on Stringer’s father, mostly the fault of Tom Parker for not paying them enough so they can have more workmen, but one which brings together Sidney and Charlotte for their first understanding (like other recent film heroines she is a born nurse) and walk on the wet beach.


Again amid the first love romance, Otis jumps off the boat to show his despair and they frolick over the splashing

And Episode 4, back again to scenes on the beach with varying couples (e.g., the genuinely amusing pair of Diana [Alexandra Roach] and Arthur, this time on donkeys), an escape to a woodland and canoeing up river (Charlotte with the uncontrollable Georgiana and compliant Otis), ending in a return to ferocious quarreling between Sidney and Charlotte after he witnesses Rose Williams’s funny parody of his own (Theo James’s) physical quirks in performance.


Rose Williams has caught the way he holds his elegant cigarette holder, his voce tones and the emphatic aristocratic (?) rocking of his body

The series does what it sets out to do: provide the pleasures of the place. The beach, the sea, the sands, the waters and landscape form another character, an alive setting. The series is fun to watch — from the bathing to (for next blog) the cricket playing. But is this series any good? you’ll ask. Yes, I think it is. Charlotte does not own the story, it’s not so centrally hers (as it feels in the book), no, but Davies has created through her a character who is a cross between the joy of life and longing for experience we see in his and Austen’s Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones), with the keen intelligence and wit of Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) and querying of Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) combined. Charlotte is (to me) so appealing, given wonderful perception lines and before our eyes is growing up. I feel I have a new heroine out of Austen.


And our heroine has a new friend, in a new whose mother was enslaved: Charlotte and Georgiana walking back from the cliff

The series also elaborates a theme about money: about our obligations to others, our responsibilities and how they tie us to one another. While the overt sexuality will leap at most viewers, including a sadomasochistic courting of Esther by the gallant Babbington (Mark Stanley is as effective as Charlotte Spencer — she is remarkable throughout), the drum-beat theme is money, finance, as it is in Austen’s Sanditon — and also the other film adaptation to come from Austen’s book with Lefroy’s as part of the frame (Chris Brindle’s).

Tom Parker is attempting to make a fortune by developing a property he owns, but has no capital for and he is doing it off money originally earned by Sidney (it seems, ominously, in Antigua, when he may have known Miss Lambe’s late father who would be the person who left her under Sidney’s guardianship) and now secured by loans. He has built a second house, he hires men he doesn’t pay, takes advantage of securing on credit tools and materials he has not bought; at the same time he goes out and buys an expensive necklace for his wife, the “gentle, amiable” (as in Austen’s book), Mrs Mary Parker (Kate Ashfield), who complacently accepts his lies. Critics and scholars have suggested the background for this is Henry Austen’s bankruptcy and what Austen saw of finances through that (see EJClery, the Banker’s Sister).

At the close of Brindle’s play, Sidney comes forward to maneuver humane deals out of the corrupt practices of Mr Tracy (a character found in Lefroy) with Miss Lambe’s money; in contrast, at the close of Davies’s eighth episode, we see Sidney agree to marry a very wealthy woman whom he dislikes very much but has a hold on him from his past (unexplained). Lady Denham is the boss of this place because she has a fortune; her nephew and niece are at her beck and call because they hope for an inheritance. Clara is similarly subjected to her; the hatred of Esther for Clara and Clara’s fear and detestation of Esther comes from money fears. Mr Stringer will die of his accident: exhausted, he sets the room on fire when his son has gone out for some minimal enjoyment. Not land, not rank, not estates but fluid money.

What Davies shows us is Tom continually pressuring Sidney to borrow more, Sidney resisting, then giving in and coming back with money, and then Tom wanting more. As the first season ends, Sidney has had to say to Tom the banks will give him no more and he does not think he can borrow more and ever get out of the hole they are in.


Mary asking Tom if Sidney has given him hope (and money to come)


and Tom lies, handing her a necklace he has just bought which he cannot begin to afford …

I am not sure that Austen’s fragment has centered on this power of banks by the time her fragment ends. Her book’s central theme is either marginalized, or erased in the film, at closest (in the assertion of feebleness in Arthur and Diana) immeasurably lightened: Austen wrote the fragment while dying and probably in great pain, and she is, as she does throughout her life, exorcizing her demons through self-mockery by inventing characters with imaginary illnesses. She certain does in the fragment write about breezes, and light, and sun and the sea with longing, but it’s not the longing of joyful youth, but the ache of the older woman remembering what she has been told about the sea and air as

healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying, bracing, — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other, If he sea breeze failed , the seabath was certainly the corrective; — and where bathing disagreed,the sea breeze alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure (Ch 2. p 163)

Austen’s fragment also gets caught up with literary satire as she characterizes Edward as a weak-minded reader of erotic romantic poetry and novels.  Perhaps as with the long travelogue-like passage of Anne Elliot staring out into the hills in Persuasion, Austen intended to cut some of this kind of detail. But with Lefroy’s continuation and (I suggest) Brindle’s extrapolations (see Mary Gaither Marshall’s paper summarized), we can see that Davies is on the right track too. Austen’s fragment is waiting for Sidney to come to Sanditon to fix things — each reference to him while suggesting his cleverness, irony, sense of humor (and of the ridiculous too) also presents him as intensely friendly, caring for his family, responsible, and as yet in good economic shape (see Drabble’s Penguin edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, pp Ch 5, pp 171, 174, 176; Ch 9, p 197; Ch 12, p 210)


Young Mr Stringer and Charlotte confiding in one another

The series also brings home that outside this world of genteel people is another very hard one. The various people that Diana Parker and Tom want Mrs Mary Parker to apply to Lady Denham to relieve are made real in Austen’s Sanditon; in the workmen we see, the people on the streets doing tasks, our characters on the edge of homelessness we feel the world outside — as we rarely do in most of these costume dramas. Chris Brindle’s play makes much of the specifics of these vulnerable victims of finance and industrial and agricultural capitalism in the dialogue of the second half of his play — how when banks go under everyone can go under and the banker (Mr Tracy) hope to walk away much much richer.

So the latest Jane Austen adaptation is a mix of strong adherence to Austen and radical contemporary deviation and development.

Not that there are not flaws. Sidney is made too angry; it’s one thing to clash, misunderstand, and slowly grow to appreciate, but as played by Theo James he has so much to come down from, it’s not quite believable that our bright and self-confident Charlotte still wants him. He is unlikeable. The only explanation for her attraction to him is he is the hero and Stringer not a high enough rank, for the scenes between Stringer and Charlotte in Stringer’s house, & walking on the beach together, on the working site, are much more congenial, compatible. The writers have made too melodramatic Esther and Edward Denham’s lines.

On the transgressive sex (a linked issue):  I see nothing gained by having Theo James expose himself to Charlotte, except that the audience is shocked. This is worse than superfluous to their relationship; it is using the penis as a fetish. The incest motif functions to blacken Edward much in a modern way similar for the 18th century reader to his admiration for the cold mean pernicious rapist Lovelace (in the book he wants to emulate the villain of Clarissa). I grant Charlotte Spencer’s lingering glances of anguish and alienation, puzzled hurt, at what she is being driven to do (accept Babbington) are memorable.

In general, the series moves into too much caricature, exaggeration – the burlesque scene of the shower is even probable, including Clara in her bitter distress reaching for a mode of self-harm — burning her arm against the red-hot pipes bringing in the lovely warm shower water. But it feels jagged. Too much is piled in in too short a time. Space we have, but there needed to be more money spent on continuity and development of dialogues within scenes, in both the briefer plots and the central moments between Sidney and Charlotte. I felt the quiet friendship seen between Mary Parker and Charlotte, and again Stringer and Charlotte on the beach (at the close of Episode 4) in companionable silence were some of the best moments of the series — as well as the wonderful dancing.

We are half-way through the PBS airing. I look forward to the second half. I have seen this ending and do know how it ends, and to anticipate a bit, I do like the non-ending ending. When we get there ….


An unconventional hero and heroine would have an unconventional ending … walking quietly by the sea

Ellen

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Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

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From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen

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John Everett Millias, from Irish Melodies: “An Excluded Woman” — the illustration was not for Agnes, but it fits central aspects of her existence, an outlier, outsider, excluded by belonging nowhere

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading another of Margaret Oliphant’s neglected masterpieces exploring aspects of women’s lives; I’ve written about these as a group (Novels of Women’s Lives: Marriage and Career) and individually (The Marriage of Elinor: scroll down); tonight I want to bring into play one aspect important to many of them, the widowed heroine. One reason Agnes has been neglected is that its emotional power, psychological brilliance, and just startling accuracy about the way a grieving widow might feel only begins after the first quarter of the second of two volumes. That is, Oliphant does not reach her electrifying content until she’s somewhat more than half-way through. And it does not come to the abyss of despair until her oldest child, an 8 year old boy, is kidnapped by her powerful aristocrat relatives in its concluding chapters.

Why does she take all this time? because the extremis anguish Agnes Trevelyan (nee Stanfield) knows occurs as a cumulative effect of years of life. First her suitor, Roger Trevelyan, after meeting her must contend with his family’s angry objections and threats to disinherit him insofar as they can, and William Stanfield, her blacksmith (as he’s endlessly described) father’s worry that the marriage is not a good idea for Agnes. Only William Stanfield, her noble-hearted kind insightful father (whom most of the genteel characters look down on because he is a blacksmith) finally consents generously to this marriage.

**************************

John Everett Millais — Frontispiece for Trollope’s Rachel Ray (it seems to me appropriate for Oliphant’s first conception of Agnes when we first meet her)

Upon marriage (we are past half the first volume) Agnes begins to grow up: she finds Roger may be above her in rank but he is inadequate as man and a spouse. In Italy at first Roger wants to keep her ostracized, wrongly fearing others will look down on her; she had been framed as a vulgar, low-coarse ambitious woman, stigmatized by the envious of her own class. The couple go to Italy, seemingly for a honeymoon, but eventually (it emerges) as part of Roger’s plan to avoid the consequences of his decision: work for a living, make an genuine effort to integrate his wife into his society, something she is capable of because she in nature, fine, intelligent, and has been educated by her father (mostly through reading).

The result is 7 to 8 years of isolation, with a few true friends for her and him (better types here and there) until illness, which turns out to be fatal drives Roger back to England and his and Agnes’s family, their community, Windholm.

We must also experience more fully what a disillusionment Agnes goes through with his young man; she learns his is a petty, selfish, snobbish, idle nature; one of his few admirable traits is that gradually he learns to appreciate her through their years of “living on nothing at all:” borrowing, cadging, his father-in-law sending lump sums (whom Roger verbally abuses anyway), some gambling.  Oliphant shows us what it is like to live on nothing a year, abysmal, humiliating. Roger sees Agnes’s fine nature but also experiences her as a boring burden (his is a corrosive wittiness), who has also laden him with three children. She contributes nothing to the household as he sees this. When they return to England, they find that her father had built a beautiful house for them when he still expected his son-in-law to make a good living; they move in, and somehow William Stanfield keeps them afloat.

Agnes has known much emotional pain from time, circumstance, her situation and chance: she once had a close loving relationship with her father, and these years have estranged them not because they are angry at one another, but because they are unwilling to be disloyal to her husband, to face up to the realities of their lives. These include her father having remarried a deeply amoral stupid woman, jealous and envious, resentful of anyone who seems to have more than she, someone (we gradually learn) who has lived by semi-prostitution and had two sons born illegitimately from Roger’s own contemptible baronet of a father, Sir Roger Trevelyan.

This is yet another book by Oliphant which has the obsessively recurring male worthless in terms of any work he does, often drunk, often lying, irresponsible; not only does he waste money but he is sexually promiscuous and he lives in a predatory manner — off others. Give him any power and he inflicts himself and misery on others. I suspect this composite figure is her younger brother who she eventually paid in effect to stay away, with aspects of her husband, older brother and specific other men she’s seen or known thrown in.

She also has a cold spiteful sister-in-law, Beatrice, who is presented as also envious, and resentful because she is unmarried, has to live with Sir Roger, somehow (like Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth) cannot get herself to marry a rich young man simply for his money. Agnes is innocent of malign feelings and has no idea how dangerous Beatrice could be to her or her children. After Agnes’s husband dies, and this sister-in-law and the father-in-law attempt to wrest custody of her beloved boy, Walter, from her, she does know. The court case goes nowhere because Roger did not leave a will specifying his son should be returned to his family for schooling, and because the judge interviews and discovers Agnes to be a valuable mother. Sometime after this Beatrice concocts a plan to kidnap Walter through Stanfield’s wife’s illegitimate children (her nephews though the book never uses this term of them).

Oliphant is not wholly unsympathetic to Beatrice Trevelyan: in her the condition of a spinster dependent on a cold indifferent father who will not give her much money is explored. It is only when Beatrice is discovered to have worked to kidnap Agnes’s son, that the book sees her narrowly as simply poisonous. In fact the portrait of Beatrice at different points of her life across the book is complex.

In this later part of the novel, the kindly noble male, brotherly, who loves the heroine selflessly for years, and turns up in other novels is her as Roger’s old friend: Jack Charleton understands how to navigate the court system, and custody of her child is not taken from her. As with the other male figures of this type in other novels (The Marriage of Elinor has such a male), our heroine does not appreciate Jack. She does yearn for affection from him, and is gradually turning to him, capable given time of becoming his wife, but not once she loses her boy. Agnes blames herself for the kidnapping of the boy because she was writing to a (in effect) love letter from Jack so did not miss her son at first.

There are a few women Agnes meets her or knows who are decent people — serious, truthful, capable of love and concern for others, but the novel’s third central worthy character whose presence is part of the core value to Agnes of her life is her son, Walter. His abduction leads to the tragic final chapters of the book. Her beloved son dies trying to escape from his captors – he jumps out a window and crushes his body.

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John Everett Millais, said to be a print for Trollope’s “A Widow’s Mite” (where however there is not literal widow; the short story is an exploration of this parable)

So to the hidden life in this book as in others (Hester comes to mind) by Oliphant disclosed to us: long passages about widowhood as experienced by Agnes once Roger dies, shorter but heart-breakingly intense once her son dies. On widowhood Oliphant produces the most accurate truthful kinds of utterances, more central than those I’ve ever read — the closest about widowhood is Julian Barnes in the last third of his Levels of Life; the closest about how a mother can die before her body physically dies, just be there breathing on, doing what you are expected for others is in the last pages of Elsa Morant’s Storia, where after her 7 year old son dies of an epileptic fit, brought on by the school authorites, and the murder of his dog (the police) Iduzza is said to live on for 9 years, but only in her body. So too Agnes.

It’s hard to find a single passage (Matthew Arnold-like) as revealing touchstone, for like many fine novels, the language’s force also depends on cumulative effect. Agnes is not in fact literally alone: she has an 8 year old boy, two babies, one an neonate, the other not yet toddling, her father lives in a house within walking distance, and yet she has this experience of “utter loneliness which the most solitary of human beings could not have surpassed … ” Yet her desolation is unbroken, and among the phrases saying why I pick this:

there was nobody to share the burden that was heaviest. Henceforward that closest bond was rent for ever and ever. Nobody in the world could say ‘It is my sorrow as well as yours.’ She had to take it all upon her, by herself and cover it up and keep it from injuring or wearying the others, who had so little to do with it. This was also a thing quite natural, and of which no one had any right to complain.

Oliphant has just before built up to “the only real hardships in existence are those that come by nature — the only ones that are inevitable an incurable, and form which there are no means of escape.” Of course this was Oliphant’s case, surrounded by people — dependent on her once her artist-husband died, leaving her nothing but large debts and three children.

We move through the burial, the funeral and just after and with Agnes discover that she cannot go back and pick up with others what was before her marriage. Like her father, her marriage has altered her and him: Changed circumstances, long absence, and “what was still more important, the character of wife, had made between Agnes and her father a separation which had nothing to do with external obstacles.” She cannot confide in him any longer nor he her.

Oliphant describes the difference of a child’s grief for the loss of the father and hers, the child’s quickly exhausts itself, nothing left after a bit and Agnes “had already gone beyond his reach without knowing it …” — that’s also true if you turn to an animal for companionship beyond a certain point.

Then when Walter is kidnapped, she shows the helplessness of the child against adults determined to bully that child into doing what the adult wants. It is frightening and should be read by all people who vote for leaders who separate families and put children in prison.

From the final two pages of Agnes:

The vicarious life in which most women spend the latter part of their day might still remain for her; but her own life was over and done and she was not one of those who live till they die. So that I have told you all her story, as well as if I had put a gravestone over her and written the last date on it, which may not be ascertained for many years … grant to [women who have no other heritage] at the end of their many days a sweet life by proxy to heal their bitter wounds.

Agnes does have her two daughters, and her father.

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A 19th century engraving, Sorrento

Oliphant knew she was describing complex feelings and realities most novelists of her time eschewed. So she provides a preface in the Tauchnitz editin (Leipzig, 1865) where she warns the reader her book will cover material most novels never get to. She says “the great value of fiction lies in its power of delineating life” and to do this she must depict what happens in the later chapters of our existences. Novels teach us by revealing “sentiments which may be in many minds, but which none would care in their own person to give expression to.”

At any earlier point, before the boy dies, Oliphant felt Agnes needed work; she is at a disadvantage because her father support her — not having to work for a living in effect. Oliphant knows that her writing was what her life became – and had been before too, but differently. The same person living a different life.

I should remark on the beautiful evocative descriptions of Italy, Sorrento, Naples, Florence — it’s clear that Oliphant herself responded on a deep level to the landscape, cultural life, and art of Italy. It’s clear from her life that Oliphant herself loved to travel: she enjoyed research books on Italy and France because she could go there.

Oliphant declares firmly that Agnes’s experience was “no tragic exceptional case … she had only the common lot, darkened by great sorrows, but not without consolation.”  This is one of many places in her writing where Oliphant questions God, and puts before us the difficulty of believing there is a good God, for who, she asks, could “be cruel enough to deprive a mother of her child,” and here “God, who was supposed to be love, had done it.” (Only the more recent scholarly literary criticism of Oliphant broaches this topic with candor).

Ellen

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Ahdaf Soueif

Would Austen have read this book? she would have seen it as an improbable Radcliffe fantasy (especially the trunk and manuscripts) and gobbled it up, all the while writing harsh abrasive remarks about it to Cassandra who would at least listen ….

Friends and readers,

I first read Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love some six years ago. I immediately recognized it as written in the Booker Prize mode: it has narratives within narratives, especially the past ones embedded into present day memories; deep subjectivity and reveries as the POV for long stretches; rich prose style. It seemed a cross between Ruth Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1984) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Brontesque in its passionate outpourings, a George Eliot kind of heroine (Anna is called a Dorothea Brooke by her great-great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman), neo-Victorian, self-consciously Orientalist. Unlike many Booker Prize winner (in the event it was merely short-listed) Soueif is more than anti- or post-colonialist: she is avidly pro-Palestinian, rightly searingly critical of British, then US, then Israel behavior towards Egypt. She provides an alternative and accurate history of Egypt within this book, teaching the reader to understand events she (most readers I’ve met have been women) has been mislead, miseducated or silenced about. I had a hard time with it because the first heroine we meet, the older new reclusive Egyptian journalist Amal al-Ghamrawi, tells her story now in the third person, now in the first person, and reads and tells Anna’s story in a similar woven way. But if you keep at it, you will find yourself enjoying a passionate historical romance masterpiece.

I reread it for a paper I wrote on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake as they seemed uncannily similar, with both having epistolary situations (epistolarity — characters reading letters and journals where we are aware of the other reader) and story-telling first person story-telling set in side-by-side time frames. Smith’s Ethelinde and Soueif’s Map of Love are deeply recessive novels. The stories and characters that matter most are suspended, remain latent until we are well into the novel. Characters who blend into one another so it’s hard to keep them distinct. Prevailing moods are melancholic, ironic and nostalgic despite considerable alienation, deeply erotic, paradoxically all the more when the main character, a woman or feminized hero, has chosen celibacy. Events occur in widely disparate geographical places, leading to estrangements between characters, whom memory nonetheless connects and who act based the connection. Books will straddle languages. Contain some form of influential armed war (whether or not off-stage). Ending in a periphery, where the characters accept severely diminished hopes, tragic deaths and loss. A retreat into a refuge, internal exile. And above all migrancy.  The trunk motif is first found in Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Intense love stories.

These past three weeks I’ve reread and skimmed and dreamt over it — for the love scenes between Anna and her Egyptian lover evoke in my mind or are very like those of Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser in Outlander. At Politics and Prose Bookstore a 2 hour single session class was held on it this past Thursday. The room was full, and we had even a male reader. The teachers, Susan Willens and Virginia Newmyer, worked thoroughly to present historical and thematical and allusion background, then went over the story line section by section, and then we discussed characters themes POV politics settings moods. So here I am to share at least that part of that original paper concerning just Map of Love and offer a brief account of the politics of Soueif’s other novel, In the Eye of the Sun (set during the 1967 Israeli-Egyptian war), and at least mention her journalistic autobiographical account of the Arab Spring (2012), Cairo and her book of good essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground) whose themes, attitudes and use of fragments as a way to speak remind me of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia.

Soueif’s core story is of Anna Winterbourne, found in a trunk filled with writing. Anna is a fin de siècle English widow of a minor English colonialist whose early death is attributed to his experience of colonial war with Kitchener’s forces on the Sudan. Anna travels to Egypt and marries a middle-aged Egyptian nationalist bachelor, Sharif Basha al Baroudi, who, like Anna, by this marriage defies and cuts himself off from his own people. Anna’s trangressive history is held off, and surfaces as correspondence told by bits and pieces. Soueif’s Map of Love was for me a page-turner as I worked my way through parallel contemporary stories of Soueif’s direct surrogates, the older now reclusive Egyptian journalist, Amal al-Ghamrawi, who reads and tells Anna’s story, of Amal’s much younger American cousin, Isabel Parkman, who has an affair with Omar, Amal’s middle-aged brother (Palestinian, modeled on Edward Said, but made directly active in the Arab-Israeli wars), to reach Anna’s “translational” texts (Hassan). The Map of Love ends when Shariff is assassinated and in the novel’s penultimate passage a paragraph remembering the ambiguous close of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. Like Smith’s pro-active young woman-daughter Medora (from her last novel, The Young Philosopher), Isabel will not give up hope (516). Anna’s story is one of failure at the close: when Sharif is assassinated, she must return to England and bring up their daughter — shades of Outlander — but unlike Claire. Anna has not been able to create a new social identity as a result of her geographic and ethnic and marital dislocation. Claire becomes a healer in Scotland and America.  Anna remains an alien and unacceptable.

The power of The Map of Love resides in its stretches of intense interiority. The reticence Soueif felt appropriate for Anna, with a sophisticated understanding of political relationships provide neo-Victorian texts (Tolstoy-like, she says), which enable Soueif to weave the colonialist and nationalist politics of Eygpt in naturally. Anna’s main correspondent is Sir Charles Winterbourne, her dead husband’s now retired father. Soueif also (anticipating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) has Amal interweave a distilled opulent neo-Victorian novel which Amal simply tells and moves between the third and first person. The Map of Love has been called a “translational novel,” with Sharif and Anna supposed talking to one another in French (though the words are English). When it finally drives down to fleeting naturalistic exchanges between the two, I was deeply moved, especially at a long scene of his dying, and her relief to have as an option a final choice of retreat for herself back to England, to educate her daughter by Shariff, paint, garden, and care for Sir Charles in his decline (505). The real mark of the post-colonial novel is migrancy, a kind of ricochet.


John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Harem — the painter who inspired Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Egypt after her husband’s return from there and death

Soueif’s novel achieves its political goal for an English novel by weaving in nuanced accurate history of the earlier phases of the British take-over. Much remains unknown to readers of English, and rarely told from the perspective of the colonised subjects. We learn of the important Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), a feminist Qasim Amin (1863-1908). The novel (like her In the Eye of the Sun on the Israeli-Eygpt wars) is meant to educate English-reading readers. Movement is temporal, back to Sharif’s father, still alive after decades of solitary confinement (political exclusion presented as religious), forward to 1900, when Anna’s eleven years in Eygpt begins, to her readers’ stories of Suez, 1952, Amal’s prime, in the 1960s, and Isabel’s now in New York, London, Cairo 1997. Soueif pokes fun at Booker Prize self-reflexive and cultural conventions, at the same time as she is open to “orientalist” texts. Shortly after her first husband’s death, Anna is drawn to return to Egypt when she is mesmerized (Map 45-46) by the Orientalist opulently colorful depictions of Egyptian street life, Islamic culture in schools, harems by Frederick Lewis (1779-1856) in her frequent trips to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Emily Weeks, an art historian has written an immense book on his work as cross-cultural. Map of Love is (Wylie Sypher like) a kind of verbal equivalent of Lewis (Sypher). Like Smith, despite the repeated failure of group efforts, Soueif hopes for an internationalism, though it has to be said that the kind of cosmopolitanism found in this novel, has lately come under scrutiny as a disguised mask for neo-liberal western-style colonialism.

Surely she was also hoping someone would make a film and she could make money that way. Increase her visibility &c

In the class we spoke of the importance of the women’s friendships and relationships within the novel, for me this was especially true for Sharif’s sister, Layla, and Anna. As is common for me, I discovered a common view of the book by the women there was critical of some of the more unusual sexual couplings which I had no trouble with. Anna’s granddaughter, Isabel’s older lover, Omar, has had an affair with her mother, Anna’s daughter, Jasmine. Some objected to the modern stories as thin, or unbelievable — no more so I felt than the Victorian one.

See this excellent review in the New York Times when the book first came out: Annette Kobak’s “Out of the Trunk.”. Also Emily Davis’s wonderful, “Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, ” Genders 45 (28 July 2007).
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Soueif’s earlier and equally long novel, In the Eye of the Sun, reveals how self-consciously she has imitated the Booker Prize model — for this is not at all pastiche, but very contemporary in language and feel. Soueif mentions Tolstoy as her master, and here she is retelling what she suggests is the crucial war of the century, and how the betrayal of Egypt (its defeat) was engineered with Britain’s help, and fostered by some of the elite of Egypt too. While I can see that Map of Love is far more polished, more somehow artful, In the eye is the more living book. It is also like Tolstoy meaning to be accurate and meaning to inform her reader — as if she were a journalist

What Soueif shows is the Egyptian authorities deliberately allowed Israel to strike first in that war and so gave it the opportunity to destroy the Egyptian air force. Having wiped that out, it was relatively easy for Israel to win the war. Soueif indicts the incompetence & rivalries between different Egyptian people in power but what is striking to this reader is how she is careful to include someone saying to someone else, the Israeli planes are on their way a day before June 6th; that is June 5th. I remember how nervous the other character became, fearful that if Egypt hits first, Egypt will be the aggressor, blamed, and then the US will outright attack Egypt. But the US has not been in the habit of attacking other countries along side Israel whom Israel wants to destroy in some way. We give them billions, and share spying information but we don’t overtly attack. Now we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Back to In the Eye of the Sun, this idea that Egypt dare not defend itself from Israel’s surprise attack because of fear of US retaliation emerges as false since what happens is the surprise attack not only pulverizes Egypt but allows the rest of Egypt’s army to suffer horrendous casualties. Whole units wiped out. It is really implied this was collusion of some sort — could it be that those in authority were thought to want a capitalist order to replace Nassar’s open socialism — remember he nationalized or wanted to nationalize the Suez canal. He was replaced by Sadat a pro-US person (pro-capitalist).

The book has a good subjective heroine’s plot. One heroine’s husband who can do no real harm gets involved in quiet revolutionary activities and is imprisoned, tortured, psychologically and economically destroyed for life: Deena’s husband, Nur-ed-Din. Several of the women die of too many childbirths; they are shown to be very much bullied by their husbands, they dare not refuse sex and sex means children. Although brief, very good is  Marilyn Booth on In the Eye of the Sun, in World Literature Today 68:1 (1994):204-5.

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To conclude, I admit I was chuffed when I found the two teachers and I were agreed in some deep ways: they loved the account of the long imprisoned father of Sharif, his melancholy despair and his (religious) attitude towards existence that enabled him to hang on in solitary for so long and endure a life-in-death. I liked some similar characters. I was also drawn (on my own) to melancholy piquant details in Eye of the Sun, e.g., Aysa’s father loses his library; it has to be sold. It is in 1979 that Deena writes letters detailing what was done to her husband (terrible things); that was the last year that Jim and I were together in NYC and found we must move to Virginia.

Other of her novels I’d like to read: The Sandpiper; other of her essays, This is not a Border. I loved this essay: “The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif” by Joseph Massad in Journal of Palestine Studies, 28:4 (Summer, 1999): 74-90

Ellen

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I like the photo of her on this cover; the book written by her over the period she was also writing The Bull Calves


Carradale House, Kintyre, Scotland — bought by Mitchison by the time of WW2 and her home thereafter

Would Jane Austen have known of this incident, oh yes, and probably read Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours of the Hebrides; did she ever mention it, no; but she did mention and read avidly a number of Scots writers who did: Scott (Waverley), Anne Grant (1802 poem, The Highlanders) among them.

Friends and readers,

The last week or so I’ve been working towards producing a first draft of a paper for a coming 18th century regional conference, whose working title is “At this Crossroads of my Life: Culloden and its aftermath.” I read Naomi Mitchison’s novel about this matter where inside two days characters confront central crossroads of their lives successfully (and finished Jenni Calder’s splendid biography of her, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, which I recommend) and I re-saw a 1994 movie of the famous massacre, said to be much influenced, almost an imitation of Patrick Watkins’s classic 1965 pseudo-documentary, Culloden, and realized for the first time its individual story’s dramaturgy creates a literal crossroads where several beautifully individualized characters experience ironic destruction. The novel first:

Naomi Mitchison’s impressive novel, The Bull Calves, occurs over 2 days, June 16th to 17th, about 2 years after Culloden, 1747, on a family estate, Gleneagles, in rural Scotland somewhere between Edinburgh and Perth. It brings together members of the Haldane family, most of them now Whigs, and pro-Hanoverian, but much conflicted over its past chequered history of complex allegiances to Tory Jacobitism. At the center of the novel is Kirstie Haldane, a woman in her late 40s, previously miserably wed for many years to an abusive husband, and Black William of Borlum, a forward looking (Whiggish) ex-Jacobite, whose father died in prison after fighting in 1715, and who himself spent many years in exiled, wandering in America. William and Kirstie are recently wed, and burdened with secrets; she, that when her husband died, she was accused of murdering him through witchcraft; he, that he was also married for several years to an Indian woman, assimilated to her tribe until their bouts of barbaric violence so alienated him, he fled back to Scotland.

The story (explaining the title of the book) is concerns poisoned relationships. William is distrusted by Kirstie’s family, his family past, a severe disadvantage to them. Several aggressive young male Haldanes, instigated by another Jacobite, Lachlan MacIntosh of Kyllachy, who, jealous of Kirstie’s love and the powerful men of this now Whig family, accuses William of treachery in harboring yet a third Jacobite wanted for arrest in the house’s attic. In this book the past is in the present; conflicted histories, long held enmities, adversarial personalities, and immediate close relationships (Kirstie to her brothers, her uncle, her niece, and nephews) and responsive behaviors and talk are tightly knotted into a densely observed cultural and social environment. What is remarkable is how inward intimate experience is the medium of the book out of which external events are dramatized through memories. The first quarter of the book consists of Kirstie telling her niece, Catherine, of her traumatic previous life in the context of the present events of a family feast and daily life. The whole of William’s time in America is told by him to her lawyer brother as remembered flashback; Mitchison’s long notes form a third instrinsic part of the novel, and the resolution of the novel in favor of compromises and modernity recall Walter Scott. Her idea is mutual loyalty and trust ought to make people achieve together and know content, something they could not do separately.

I found myself fully absorbed by the intensities of the conflicts, the possibility dangerous outcomes (prison, transportation, more exile), a sense of their feelings, and was anxious over what would happen as our chief couple seeks to invent or continue their new life and re-formed identities. The characters seek to escape loneliness by finding sympathy in what they need to tell; and at the end of each part harmonies shape the action: dancing, feasting, going to bed. The book also felt drenched in layers of Scottish culture, mythical, supernatural, and uses Jungian archetypal theories so William needs the Kirstie’s humane inner self (her anima) and she needs his strength and force (his animus).

It is an analysis of the way Jacobitism poisoned the lives of those who got involved at the same time as it shows why they did so: the movement appealed to the underdog, the exploited and powerless, those who could not join in on the new capitalism and forms of power emerging in the 18th century. She defines Jacobitism complexly through a socialist perspective (you must read the book) and brilliantly in her notes and in the novel’s story. We experience how this complicated movement against Whig Hanoverian regime (capitalist lairds) plays out in real life circumstances then and now. Her use of language, a contemporary idiom mixed with a lyrical interplay of Scots 18th century dialect is also part of the book’s enjoyment.

It was written over the five years of Mitchison’s stay in a more remote part of Scotland during World War Two, managing a household, serving a community as its chatelaine; and she uses the Scottish defeat and struggles to express what she was feeling as the dreadful and later more hopeful end to the conflict. She was a Haldane, her brother, the famous JBS Haldane, and a number of the characters are partly modeled on people she knew and loved.  So the book resembles Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General, also written over the years of the war she spent managing a family estate in Cornwall, where a story of the English civil war making heavy use of real historical figures and particulars enabled her to come to terms with and express her anguish and personal experiences; also Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orchia, Susan Sontag’s 1993 Volcano Lover, while mostly set in the 18th century, also occurs a auction room in 1943. It’s not just women who turned to historical fiction: Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza are the products of his five years as a coastguard in Cornwall. Diana Wallace says in her book on women’s historical fiction and romance, that in the 1930s and 40s women wrote books about the repeatedly defeated; they were also seeking reconciliation, commitment to compassion and reasoned progress in the face of nightmare. You can call all of these but Ross Poldark heroine’s texts.

Then this unexpectedly poignant absorbing fine film.


Brian Blessed as Major Eliot in Chasing the Deer

Chasing the Deer may be said to be an improvement on Watkins’s film. The line is from a stanza by Burns:

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.”

The thrust of the film is to create intense sympathy for the highlanders caught up in this war. The Scottish countryside is photographed with heart-aching beauty, the colors lovely, lots of sparkling water, indigenous plant-life, the usual stags and deer, small animals everywhere. The music by John Wetton (and others) is original and written for the film, with much bagpipe feel. As with Watkins many of the people were not professional actors at all; they were the people crowdsourced to provide adequate funds. The film is done with considerable integrity, nothing over-flashy, nothing ratcheted up for melodrama or sexual scene’s sake.

It is as anti-war (showing the brutality and horror of war) as Watkins’s film but the overall effect is to project the death and a mourning for a traditional Scottish way of life, however impoverished. The film-makers convey the inner experience of the calamites inflicted on immediately a few thousand men and then long range their families and homes all around them. The public story is conveyed by epitomizing scenes of leading generals, famous people discussing where they are just now. The film-makers present Prince Charles Edward (Dominique Carrara) as someone who is foreigner, there without resources or connections, without any initial understanding of the desperate conditions and lack of manpower and wealth in a group of people he has chosen to base a desperate bid for his family’s power on. Cumberland (Dominic Borelli) is made to seem yet worse: a dense cold fat bully understandably determined to make sure no more of these nuisance uprisings will happen again. We see the irrational glorification of the Prince by the crowds and his incompetence; the story of Murray’s inability to avoid the final disaster is doe full justice to and the horrors wreaked on the losers.

I also find the film also valuable for the human story it tells, which suggests all the people involved could be switched to the other side, so the action is senseless from the point of view of those who die or whose way of life is destroyed. For this we follow the story of Alistair Campell (Matthew Zajac) who wants nothing to do with wars, but is driven to go right the war as a Jacobite because his son, Euan (Lewis Rae) is snatched by a group of Jacobites, and he is told the boy has been put in prison and will be kept there or killed (for shooting someone) and only released if his father fights with them. Euan is re-captured by a group of Hanoverian soldiers, made a dummmer boy, and comes to the attention to a Major Eliot (Brian Blessed) still grieving over his only son’s death in India (so Eliot had taken the boy to the colonies as part of his career), who takes Euan as a servant and son and attempt to teach and protect him insofar as this is possible.

We also see the women isolated, losing their men one by one – sometimes carelessly killed. Euan has impregnated a girl before he left; his mother Morag (Carolyn Konrad) when she discoveres her son is taken by the Hanoverians attempts to find her husband to tell him so he will return home. She cannot and it is too late. In the Shakespearean scene I referred to Euvan is cut down early on at Culloden; as he falls Alistair glimpses him and on the Hanoverian side; the father runs to the son as the son lies dying unaware his father is looking down on him; Eliot, not far off, mistakes Alistair for the murderer, so murders Alistair and carries the boy away in his arms in a state of raging grief. The last scene is of the three woman and a new baby in the house, hugging in a circle, waiting for their home possibly to be destroyed.


On the march from Inverness (I apologize for my inability to block out the constant ad logo, an irritant while watching movies played on TV stations nowadays)

I thought of a line from the serial drama Outlander (I don’t know if it’s in the book): what kind of people do we become and how do we remain ourselves even when we think all is lost ….

Ellen

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The view from the cliffs of Walton-On-The-Naze, Essex from 27.10, Brindle, Sanditon Film-Of-The-Play (thanks to Chris Brindle for supplying it [Olympus Digital Camera]


Joanna Harker and Jennifer Ehle as Jane and Elizabeth, the central pair of the novel brought out beautifully by so many scenes between the sisters in Davies’s 1995 P&P


Sidney Parker (Theo James) and Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) bypassing one another in Davies’s Sanditon (Part 2)

Dear friends and readers,

A blog on Austen herself is long overdue, so by way of getting back to her texts, I offer tonight two videos on or of film adaptations.


Miss Bingley claims a dance from Darcy at an assembly ball (1940 MGM P&P)


Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth (1979 P&P, Fay Weldon)

Over on Janeites@groups.io, Nancy Mayer sent the URL to this interesting (not overlong at all) video: “Book vs. Movie: Pride and Prejudice in Film & TV (1940, 1980, 1995, 2005)” or “Pride and Prejudice by the Book:”

I find it an an excellent video review. It’s not original in approach but each of the four perspectives, and the points made are accurate and as a composition, the whole makes sense. Comparing these four makes sense too because they are (as the narrators says) of the faithful (heritage it’s called sometimes) approach. What makes the video especially good, gives it some distinction is the choice of shots, the scenes and dialogues chosen, and how they are put together. The video-makers had to have watched all movies four over and over again, made very careful slices, and then spent a long time putting together juxtapositions and montages. The one drawback is many of the dialogues from the movies in the clips, are too shortened, not enough of the conversation cited. For example, in Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, when Claudie Blakeley as Charlotte accusingly says to Elizabeth, before telling Elizabeth of her decision to marry Mr Collins, “don’t you judge” (a few words to this effect), the eloquent speech just afterwards would have brought out not just the quality of the modernization of the language of this one, but the in-depth interpretation offered by the script-writer Deborah Moggach, with some help from Emma Thompson


The incandescent Lawrentian erotic close of Joe Wright’s 2005 P&P, Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden as Elizabeth and Darcy (tacked onto the American version)

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Sanditon is now airing on ITV, will in January 2020 be shown on PBS, and the creator, script-writer, Andrew Davies, has a new and freer adaptation of Austen than he’s done before. After watching several of his adaptations over the 2 decades from 1990, we can see how far he has come (going with the era he’s developing a film for) from his first adaptation – he has now “done” P&P, Emma, S&S and Northanger Abbey — all of these very good in their Davies way, a re-vision partly from a male point of view. I note he has said no more and think to myself he is no fan of Mansfield Park and is avoiding the dark melancholy and unfinished state of Persuasion (captured very well in 2007, directed by Adrian Shergold, written by Simon Burke)


Two stills from Andrew Davies’ Sanditon, the first episode, the first glimpses of the place and beach; the second POV Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) and Tom Parker (Kris Marshall)

For some first impressions of the Part 1 Sanditon, and now Part 2

The second video, I offer by contrast: the cabaret style YouTube of the musical Sanditon as it played cabaret style in London this past late July.

I’ve written too many blog-reviews and commentaries on Chris Brindle’s filmed play of Sanditon (heritage style the faithful type), and a couple of the songs, so accompany this one just by a photograph of the English shoreline down south, here unspoilt (uncommercialized)

Here is a still I’ve not put up yet of Charlotte Heywood in comic anguish:


Act I of Brindle’s Sanditon — Amy Burrows as Charlotte Heywood


Part 2 of Davies’s Sanditon — Rose Williams as Charlotte emerging from bathing in English channel

A closing thought: it seems to me that a remarkable variety of types of films (genre, or heritage/appropriation), points of view, film techniques have been used across Austen’s corpus, testifying to how capable the books are of suggesting lines of approach for each era they have been read in.

Ellen

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Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

Ellen

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